Study: Medical marijuana could decrease opioid use
Two studies suggest that some people in states with medical marijuana dispensaries avoid using opioids as a way to treat chronic pain
By EMS1 Staff
WASHINGTON — Two recent studies suggest that medical marijuana may decrease the use of opioids.
NPR reported that in states with medical marijuana dispensaries, some people are avoiding the use of opioids to treat pain and instead turning to cannabis, according to a study by the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine published in JAMA Internal Medicine.
"We do know that cannabis is much less risky than opiates, as far as likelihood of dependency," University of Georgia professor W. David Bradford, who helped conduct the study, said. "And certainly there's no mortality rate.”
Bradford added that “there are substantial reductions in opiate use” in states that have made medical marijuana legal, with a 14 percent decrease in prescriptions based on Medicare data.
Another study conducted by the University of Kentucky College of Public Health also suggested that medical marijuana may slow the opioid epidemic.
Lead author Hefei Wen found that both medical and recreational marijuana "have the potential to reduce opioid prescribing for Medicaid enrollees, a segment of population with disproportionately high risk for chronic pain, opioid use disorder and opioid overdose. Nevertheless, marijuana liberalization alone cannot solve the opioid epidemic."
Bradford said that while medical marijuana could decrease opioid use, “it is not without risks.”
"Like any drug in our FDA-approved pharmacopeia, it can be misused,” he said. “There's no question about it. So I hope nobody reading our study will say 'Oh, great, the answer to the opiate problem is just put cannabis in everybody's medicine chest and we are good to go.' We are certainly not saying that."
On the other side of the spectrum, Columbia University professor Dr. Mark Olfson conducted a study and found that marijuana users were six times more likely to abuse opioids than non-users.
"A young person starting marijuana is maybe putting him — or herself at increased risk," Olfson said. "On the other hand there may be a role — and there likely is a role — for medical marijuana in reducing the use of prescribed opioids for the management of pain.”
Olfson said a study needs to be conducted that follows individuals and determines whether or not marijuana use is a good substitute for opioids, but it’s difficult to conduct such a study because of the restrictions the federal government puts on marijuana research.
"That does make this a difficult area to study, and that's unfortunate because we have a large problem with the opioid epidemic," Olfson says. "And at the same time, with an aging population, we have lots of people who have pain conditions and who will benefit from appropriate management."